COVID-19 home testing in Australia: What you need to know

COVID-19 rapid antigen home testing is finally coming to Australia. Here's what you need to know, including how it works, how much it costs and when it will be available.

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Australians will soon be able to test themselves for COVID-19 at home instead of going to a clinic. This is likely to be a requirement for travel once Australia opens up its borders, even if you're fully vaxxed. It will also ease the economic burden of running hundreds of testing locations around the country.

So how do these tests work, exactly? Are they as effective as a standard PCR test? And how much do they cost?

To answer these questions, we spoke to 2 experts in this field: Dr Larisa Labzin, an IMB Fellow and NHMRC CJ Martin Fellow at the Institute for Molecular Bioscience at The University of Queensland; and Mimi Ho, Clinical Supervisor and Policy Advisor (Rapid Antigen Test & Rapid Antibody Test) at Global Healthworkz.

Here's everything Australians need to know about COVID-19 rapid antigen home testing.

How does COVID home testing work?

Rapid antigen tests are essentially a screening tool that help detect COVID-19 in people without any symptoms (asymptomatic). According to the NSW government, they are quicker and easier than a standard PCR test but also less effective.

The test involves placing a saliva sample or nasal swab into a chemical solution. They provide results within around 20 minutes.

"How it works is sort of similar to a pregnancy test," Dr Labzin told Finder. "Essentially our immune system makes antibodies that are specific to different viruses. So if you've got some of that antigen present, the test will recognise it and alert you with a colour change."

Another benefit of rapid antigen testing is that the test does not require an intrusive procedure. Unlike a clinic test, you don't need to shove anything down your throat or up your nose.

"With some rapid antigen testing kits, you don't have to put a swab in your throat because the particles still exist in our saliva," explained Ho.

"You just expel a few drops on the test case itself. The test case will be able to detect whether we have the virus or not. So that means that the user can find out at home – they don't have to send it off and wait a couple of days."

Here's a video demonstration of a testing kit:

When will home testing kits become available in Australia?

According to federal health minister Greg Hunt, COVID-19 rapid antigen home testing will be available from 1 November 2021.

How do I know if a home testing kit is legit?

All COVID-19 testing kits must be approved by the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) in order to be legally supplied in Australia. Dozens of kits from different companies are currently in the final approval stages with the TGA. To ensure test results are as accurate as possible, make sure you're buying a TGA-approved test kit.

How much do COVID home testing kits cost?

COVID home testing kits are still being approved by the TGA, so we're still waiting on official pricing information. However, it's possible to get a rough idea by looking at the average RRP in other countries.

"When purchasing wholesale for a business or doctors' clinic, it's around $8 to $15 per pack, but for individual purchase the price is higher," Ho explained.

"This is because each kit needs to be packaged in a separate box with detailed instructions so the production costs are obviously higher. So when buying a single-use kit online, the price could be between $30 and $50."

Is home testing as effective as going to a clinic?

No. The chief benefit of rapid antigen testing is speed and simplicity. Unlike PCR testing, they do not need to be administered by a medical professional or sent to a lab. On the downside, they aren't as successful at detecting the virus.

"[Home testing kits] are good because it's quick and rapid but there are issues around the specificity of it so the chances of getting a false negative are higher," Dr Labzin explained.

"One of the reasons it hasn't been widely used in Australia yet is that previously the cases of COVID were so low the chance of getting a false positive or a false negative was too high. But now that we're moving towards a 'living with COVID' scenario instead of zero cases, they have a lot more use."

As explained on the NSW Health website, if you get a positive rapid antigen test result, you will still need to get a standard PCR COVID-19 test from a clinic to confirm the result.

Where can I buy COVID-19 home testing kits?

Once their safety and effectiveness has been approved for unsupervised home testing, kits will start to appear in chemists and online stores. Here are just some of the manufacturers that have sent testing kits to the TGA for approval:

  • Guangzhou Wondfo Biotech
  • Hough Pharma Pty Ltd
  • Ellume Covid Tests
  • Health Vision Australasia Pty Ltd
  • Beckman Coulter Australia Pty Ltd
  • Bio-Rad Laboratories Pty Ltd
  • Abbott Rapid Diagnostics Pty Ltd
  • Atomo Diagnostics Limited
  • Suretest (formerly Life Clinic Australia Pty Ltd)
  • Medi-Stats ANZ Pty Ltd
  • Solasta Life Pty Ltd
  • Cole Workwear PL
  • Pantonic Health Pty Ltd
  • Emergence Technology Pty Ltd
  • Allsafe Medical Pty Ltd
  • Tayler Dental Consulting Pty Ltd
  • Pharma Soul Pty Ltd
  • Southwind International Pty Ltd
  • Icon International Pty Ltd t/a Icon Medipharm
  • LJCJ Pty Ltd
  • Accelagen Pty Ltd
  • SureScreen Australia Pty Limited

In other words, you should be spoiled for choice come 1 November. We'll be bringing you a comprehensive list of test kits as soon as they become available for purchase. [Note: Not all TGA approved and ARTG listed kits will be approved for use as home tests.]

Rapid antigen test vs PCR test

Need more information? Here are the main differences between PCR tests (the type you receive at clinics) and rapid antigen tests (the type that will soon be available for home testing).

Nucleic acid-based testing (PCR tests)

Molecular or nucleic acid-based tests (also known as PCR tests) are the most accurate way to test for COVID-19 and are usually carried out by specialised laboratories.

  • How it works. It detects the presence of SARS-CoV-2 genetic material (RNA) in respiratory samples to determine if COVID-19 is present.
  • What it tests. It tests for a current COVID-19 infection (usually within 1–2 days).
  • How samples are collected. Samples are collected through a nose, throat or oral swab.
  • How long it takes. It usually takes 1–2 days to process the results.

Antigen-based testing (rapid tests)

Antigen tests are rapid COVID-19 tests that produce quick results when you test for COVID-19 at doctors' offices, pharmacies or in workplace/academic settings.

  • How it works. Samples are placed in an extraction buffer or reagent and tested for the presence of SARS-CoV-2-specific virus proteins (also called antigens).
  • What it tests. It tests for a current COVID-19 infection (usually within 15 minutes).
  • How samples are collected. Samples are collected through a nose, throat or oral swab.
  • How long it takes. It usually takes 15 minutes to an hour to process the results.

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